Oregon just became the first state in the union to essentially ban single-family zoning. That is, should a property owner want to build something like a duplex or fourplex, they will no longer be restrained by zoning in order to do so (with some caveats).
It follows the Minneapolis City Council, which voted in December of 2018 to end single-family zoning citywide (along with abolishing parking minimums for all new developments). Presidential candidates under the Democratic Party banner, including Elizabeth Warren, have opted to take on single-family zoning as well.
California was on the same path with the now-defunct SB50—and on that path for good reason: we are the heart of the nation’s housing crisis, with the L.A.-Long Beach metro leading the way. Part of that crisis is the way we have zoned our neighborhoods: Nearly 75% of all residential land in Los Angeles County is dedicated solely to single-family housing.
When our City Council was considering opposing SB50—Sen. Scott Weiner’s second and far more valiant attempt to bolster the state’s housing construction through policy—I was, to say the least, dismayed by the agenda put forth by Councilmembers Al Austin and Stacey Mungo.
When the council actually opposed the bill unanimously, even after Jeannine Pearce publicly stated support for the bill in the piece linked above, I was baffled. We’re in a crisis; that’s not hyperbole but fact.
‘Long Beach isn’t the problem’
After all this, I talked to Councilman Rex Richardson, who asked that SB50 being “opposed unless amended,” meaning he wanted Long Beach excluded from its exceptions; he wanted to focus on areas, like Orange County, where he felt the NIMBYism was for more malicious. I spoke to Richardson because he has been involved in the Everyone In initiative and, frankly put, was shocked he voted against the bill.
Richardson basically pitched the argument for his dissent to me along these lines: “Long Beach isn’t the problem; it’s other cities like Huntington Beach. We’re building housing the way we should and others are failing. We shouldn’t give up our development power if we’re doing things right. I sit on Southern California Association of Governments, which is filled with planners—we are leading in that organization.” Richardson emphasized the role of the association and its “progressiveness” on housing.
At first, I got it from a political angle—municipalities giving up developmental power will not come easy—but still found the argument weak if not outright childish: I didn’t do it, Mom, they did.
Cue the political tears of ineptitude.
And, most importantly, no, Mr. Richardson; we are not doing this right—which is why I wrote to Mr. Austin and Mrs. Mungo the same sentiment.
Our metro area leads the nation in hosting the most cost-burdened households while our city is the seventh worst in the nation. Our metro is the 10th most segregated area in the nation. Long Beach is not building enough housing for the working middle-class. The very report you commissioned, Mr. Richardson, states that we must “forge a new model” in order to prevent displacement among our most vulnerable populations.
The cognitive dissonance is astounding. But rest assured, Long Beach, data doesn’t apply to us and the council thinks we’re doing fine.
The state wouldn’t have introduced this bill twice if cities were keeping up with the housing construction they’re legally required to build, nor would I have to write an article every month about yet another research paper which shows that, yup, we’re in a housing crisis. (Hence why Gov. Gavin Newsom is suing the City of Huntington Beach: Despite population projections, the city has found sneaky ways to skirt building more housing and appeasing to NIMBYism.)
Well, it seems like that same association, one that represents five counties across the Southland, doesn’t think any policy is good for them: Even though Newsom, who has boldly called for 3.5 million new homes to be built by 2025, has the power to determine how much housing can and should be built, Richardson’s much-touted organization has outright said, “Nope”—a no that was largely led by the involvement of Orange County, one of five counties representing the association.
That’s right: the “progressive” organization that represents half of the state’s population has said that SoCal will pledge to build 430,000 new homes through 2029. (By the way, a committee within the association previously recommended 660,000 new homes; the board voted for even less despite the fact that Richardson, in fairness, argued that the higher number should be adopted. Both numbers ultimately fail.)
California has a fair-housing law—it just doesn’t work
Our state has a fair-share housing law that requires municipalities and counties across the state to properly zone residential districts—which is why Newsom is the Power That Is in implementing said law.
The law is a well-intentioned piece of legislation passed in 1967 that was meant to assure affordability for all Californians. It requires cities to produce hundreds of pages of reports dubbed “housing elements” that show what can be done, but it doesn’t hold their feet to the fire to assure it actually gets done. For example, after the required reports were submitted to the state in 2006, 1.5 million new homes were supposed to be built in California by 2014; less than half of that were constructed.
The law has become so resented by lawmakers, echoing Richardson’s plea that local governments have control over development in their cities, that student dormitories and prison beds are considered low-income housing.
On top of this, it has allowed politicians to cater to complaints about developments, complaints that largely come from single-family homeowners who constantly decry density, complain about traffic and incoming population growth, and simply don’t want change. That desire for a lack of change is exacerbating rising housing costs while spurring displacement and poverty.
Additionally, cities that accommodate foster children can lower the requirement of low income housing they claim they need to produce. Other absurd exceptions have been made: La Habra Heights officials said they need to be exempt from the law because low-income people would begin demanding needs like public transportation; Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand just said flat-out that his city “has no housing shortage;” La Cañada Flintridge planning commissioner Der Sarkissian said low-income housing shouldn’t be forced onto the community because “People like people of their own tribe.”
The funny thing? The law is about giving local control; it allows cities to set their own zoning standards to achieve the growth they expect. The reality? Local governments don’t want to build what they should to keep it affordable.
The Southern California Association of Governments, one of the regional agencies required to submit reports every eight years under the inefficient law, is reporting on what it will do beginning 2021, hence their proposed number of units by 2029.
But don’t worry, Long Beach, we’re fine.
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